Deeper into the challenge of changing scotland

Robin McAlpine

I’ve had a lot of correspondence (and some comments on the Common Weal website) resulting from last week’s article. I know how depressing it is to read for many people just now, but that is why I am keen to see debate in Scotland about this problem. So let me continue the conversation for another week by responding to what people have sent me.

The most common response I’ve had is ‘depressing, but this is how I’ve been feeling about things’. I’ve been getting a steady stream of ‘I have no-one to vote for’ emails for a while now and disillusion is widespread. Of course people who email me are not representative of the whole country, but what enthusiasm I can see elsewhere seems purely performative.

So why has all of this happened? Is it the act of individuals, or the hands of fate, or is there something wrong with Scottish devolution? The answers are all yes. A culture of individualism has spread right across politics and the culture of neoliberalism transformed the idea of ‘command from above, compliance from below’ from being authoritarian to being ‘technocratic’.

It is not only in Scotland that power has contracted into smaller and smaller units of increasingly unaccountable people at the top – it is a global phenomenon. It really isn’t that long ago since Scotland’s politics did not revolve around ‘the search for the next charismatic leader to follow’, it just feels like it.

So when you add in the shift from politics divided on a spectrum from left to right to one divided on a spectrum from nationalist to unionist with the parallel appearance of another political spectrum revolving around identity, you get fragmentation. Tory libertarians and left ‘identarians’ (we don’t really have a settled language for this yet) often seem to have more in common with each other than they do respectively with conservative Tories and class-focussed leftwingers.

And then of course you could be a pro-indy Conservative Tory and get in a fight with an anti-indy Conservative Tory. In this endless kaleidoscope of dissolving political alliances a tiny number of big issues dominate (at the moment self-ID for trans people and Scottish independence).

It is really hard to get people to gather en masse around social issues just now. Believe me, Common Weal has tried. If we push a debate on the housing crisis, the following will happen. One group will condemn us because our housing policy doesn’t mention [fill in identity group] housing issues; another will complain that we shouldn’t be listened to because we are ‘nats’; another group will shout ‘that’s for after indy, you’re betraying the cause’.

Again, anywhere you look you’ll see the same thing, but Scotland does have a specific devolution problem too. The vision of a non-confrontational parliament was admirable, but that has morphed into a cosy complacency. I have written extensively about how the decline of the media, the rise of a well-remunerated public sector bureaucratic empire and lack of checks and balances in the parliament have exacerbated all of this. 

This is the result of a complex mess and has resulted in a complex mess. Can we rescue what is there? Among the questions I have had are the possibilities of real reform in the SNP, what would happen if the SNP ceased to exist and the possibility of using the Scottish Greens as the vehicle.

So here are my guesses. It is unlikely the SNP will cease to exist, but there is a genuine risk it might not be able to stand candidates in the General Election unless it can sort out its auditor problems to the satisfaction of the Electoral Commission and there are no signs the party is taking reform seriously just now. In fact the evidence suggests the opposite.

But from my perspective, for the time being, the SNP must exist and fulfil at least one task – win constituency seats. There isn’t an obvious alternative option for that unless it fully implodes, Scottish Labour changes its constitutional position or we give up on independence.

So what about balancing this with a vote for the Greens on the list? I have to say that my handful of correspondence on this subject has been a bit split. Most are taking the ‘yes, what has happened to my party?’ line but a couple are saying ‘that’s unfair, Green Ministers are doing their best given the restrictions’. But is that true? Is it really the case that the Green agenda in government is the only possible one?

Nope, it definitely isn’t. On PFI for Trees, weak regulation to protect renters and the mass-privatisation of the Deposit Return Scheme, alternatives are available. For the trees, without land reform it would been better not to have bothered as the negative long term economic and social effects will dwarf the minor short-term environmental benefit.

The Deposit Return Scheme should have been a scheme to reuse and refill bottles like the German scheme but the reality is that it is a backdoor move to take recycling out of democratic local authority control and hand it over to a private company that pays its boss twice the salary of the country’s First Minister. And a rent freeze and eviction ban without loopholes was perefectly possible.

The Scottish Greens appear to be morphing into the German Greens – so long as there is an environmental outcome the means don’t matter, even if they are clearly right wing. All three of these policies would have been identical without Green ministers, so what do we get out of electing them?

What you can’t vote for is a party with an agenda for serious economic reform to reduce economic inequality. Even if you strayed towards Scottish Labour (which is doing some good things in parliament), you’re still voting for the ‘lock up the paedos‘ Starmer party in the end. There is a serious gap in Scottish politics, and that is very much reflected in my correspondence.

One of the points I get from people is a kind of variation on the ‘flatpack democracy’ idea I mentioned last week. That is a question of ‘can we tackle this by ending top-down’. And that there is the point – yes, that is the solution, but because Scotland is so centralised the only way to end top-down is to take power which can currently only be done in a centralised way. Unless you change the law, it remains top-down. To change the law you must be at the top. Repeat.

That leaves two options – enter politics or influence politics. Despite the stasis in Scotland it is still possible (certainly in theory) to come up with a wide-ranging reform agenda and to build a large social movement behind it demanding that reform. In fact Common Weal has basically created a reform agenda. But it’s hard to see a big enough, strong enoug coalition forming soon.

Entering politics (new political party, slate of independents or whatever you attempt) has its own long list of difficulties. Starting any new political initiative is always hard, gaining traction harder, finding space often harder again. It’s not an argument against doing it, it’s an argument to understand the many challenges involved.

Which takes me to the last set of issues – how fast could we fix this? Some people say change can come quickly, some people can’t see where change is going to come from based on where we are. Who is right? Both. Change could be very, very fast indeed. I explained a few weeks ago that you could do the whole thing in two pieces of legislation that you could pass into law in under a year.

But no-one who could make that happen is interested. There are cross-party politicians in the Scottish Parliament who individually want reform but there is no party which does. The SNP could be doing it, the Greens could have made it a condition, Labour only ever mentions it in a partisan context. It is ironic that the party perhaps closest to a decentralising agenda is the Tories (based on a prevalence of rural seats) – and they’re not that close.

All of the above and an awful lot more has been the mental environment in which I have been operating for many years now. In my head I have played this out in every version that I can. I repeat, taking only what currently exists and creating the most hopeful, optimistic near future on that basis, I cannot derive a realistic chance that the system will fix itself.

That is why I wanted to write that piece last week and why I’m writing about it again today. I don’t have all the answers here, but I’m clear that we won’t find them unless we talk about them openly. Scottish politics, in its own way, is almost as broken as US or British politics.

But I am an optimist, or I wouldn’t do the job I do or live the life I live. So let me leave you with this – those two pieces of reform legislation that could transform Scotland could turn this country upside down and for the better in under 18 months. You certainly can’t say that in Britain and you certainly can’t say that in the US.

If nothing else, just be grateful that Scotland is still all to play for. But we need to kick the game off soon if we want to win.

8 thoughts on “Deeper into the challenge of changing scotland”

  1. Alasdair Macdonald

    Well, let’s discuss the details of your local democracy bill and your governance reform bill.

    1. Cameron Crawford

      Agreed. The devil is in the detail, and as Robin highlights, Holyrood has a very poor recent track record on delivering coherent detail.

  2. Richard Sutherland

    In May 2022, the devil was in the detail when Scottish National Investment Bank, SNIB, made a £9m investment to fund the development of Circularity Scotland Limited, administrators of Scotland’s Deposit Return Scheme. It said the Bank’s £9m investment, alongside an additional £9m from Bank of Scotland will fund the start up costs of Circularity Scotland, scheme administrator for Scotland’s Deposit Return Scheme. https://www.thebank.scot/portfolio/circularity-scotland

    Is the DRS scheme therefore a private sector scheme to make money from people to then pay other people lots and lots more money ?

    The DRS Board is all private sector background – KPMG ; Asda ; S&N ; Tesco ; Coca Cola ; Diageo ; BPI
    These private companies may have a view on DRS.

    The devil is in the detail when the headlines are – ” Deposit return scheme Scotland: Irn-Bru maker AG Barr and Coca Cola urge next First Minister to make DRS ‘top priority’ ”

    DRS also hires from SNIB – Kerra McKinnie is Chief Marketing and Communications Officer. Kerra joined Circularity Scotland in January 2023 from the Scottish National Investment Bank. She has extensive experience in communications, marketing and operations across FMCG, drinks, logistics and financial services. This includes S&N.

    1. I would like to know what concerns about the Scottish National Investment Bank made Eilidh Mactaggart leave her position.

  3. The SNP built up over the decades by campaigning and recruiting in rural areas. It has morphed into a club closely controlled in Edinburgh (the colonial home of privately educated Little Englanders). Even the Common Weal discussion papers only refer to Scotland’s rural areas’ biggest immediate problem, transport, fleetingly in relation to other ideas (e.g. railways, which serve a tiny minority in rural areas, and carbon reduction – guaranteed to excite bus-riding, cycling suburbanites, but unfeasible for rural citizens). Trees for estates and rewilding for landlords are diversions from the English (there, I’ve said it!) colonisation of rural areas resulting from massive house price inflation around London – and it’s all paid for by Scottish oil income. Well, apart from Russian oligarchs’ investments, of course. And Scotch whisky exports. Is a real decolonisation movement ever likely to emerge in Holyrood?

  4. It seems we are doomed. And the frustrating thing about it – it doesn‘t have to be that way. I know that there are (lots of) people out there waiting for the tide to turn. It is the feeling of helplessness which drags people down. I‘m usually a very positive person but find the inability to have constructive discussions about challenging topics absolutely disheartening.

  5. Campbell Anderson

    Thanks again Robin for your further analysis of the state of our political realities. I am happy to accept your key point that we need to talk about the reforms of the local democracy and governance bills. Let’s focus on building a campaign to lobby for these changes if they hold the key to other aspirations. You have an opportunity from the platform next Saturday to highlight this necessity.
    Scotland does not need gulags to control dissidents. The political establishment and media control are sufficient to marginalise and trivialise us. I write this from the Basque Country. My very unscientific questioning of locals tells me there is no desire now to separate from Spain. The handful of people I have asked might be totally unrepresentative but polling and inaction by former activists back it up. This fine community has its own widely spoken language and traditions which distinguish it from Spain. It has its own assembly but the people passively accept their union now. Is this what’s in store for Scotland? A political master plan is being enacted by the right to control us . We live in Orwellian times.
    I accepted wheesh for Indi for a while but not now. I have wanted Independence all my life but it’s only going to produce the better society we crave if the reforms you pinpoint happen first. The Russian revolution replaced the Tzar’s with a dictatorship and see how well that went, even today.
    So we need to follow you Robin to break the system.

  6. florian albert

    Robin McAlpine refers to two options; ‘enter politics or influence politics.’
    The sense of despair so many feel at present is because they chose the latter and it has failed so spectacularly. The assumption was that ‘radical’ Scotland could back the SNP – the main driver of the push for independence – and use their influence to push for a leftward re-orientation. Thus achieving the agenda for ‘serious economic reform to reduce income inequality.’ It failed because the SNP had no interest in this agenda and – much worse – has shown itself to have been a bog standard populist failure; albeit one with a calm and controlled veneer.
    Why did they choose this option ? There are many reasons but, near the top of the list is an acceptance of the difficulty in getting political support for this serious economic reform. Nicola understood this but she also understood that if she talked it up, a substantial part of the electorate would be satisfied. Just as another, overlapping part of the electorate was content with similar talk about a future referendum leading to the sunlit uplands of Independence.

    Robin McAlpine writes of ‘using the Greens as the vehicle’. This sounds very much like repeating the mistake of a decade ago which has led to the present state of affairs.

    ‘Enter politics’ remains the only option. If your ideas as good as you think and the Scots are as keen on reform and equality as you believe, it can be done.

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